Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.


A Turkish Coup

As if the Middle East was not complicated enough as it was. While a lot of things have happened there recently, probably the biggest one was the coup attempt in Turkey, and interestingly enough, it was probably starting at the same time I was watching an interview with the Turkish Prime Minister on TV. The interview was almost certainly recorded, but nevertheless it was somewhat ironic that he was talking about the stability of democracy in Turkey, amongst other things.

There is one thing about this coup attempt that interested me, and that was the way it happened. In my ebook novel, “Miranda’s Demons”, I had a prescription for what should be in a coup. I am not saying that this prescription is sufficient, but I thought at the time it was at least necessary, and it appears that the Turkish generals who organized the coup broke all the items in this prescription. They should have bought my book J. Cheap at the price, the alternative being either the death penalty or a very long time in a Turkish jail.

In any coup attempt, the incumbents have many advantages, including being there, and having a significant machinery to enforce the law. Recall, coups are generally considered illegal, at least until they are successful. So, how to succeed? Obviously, the first requirement is to prevent the incumbents from organizing a response. The one big advantage to the plotter is, as long as they can maintain secrecy, surprise. They have to achieve as much as they can before a response can be started. That means taking and controlling the centres from which a response might be organized, and in particular, controlling communications. As far as we can make out, these plotters failed to appreciate the importance of communications, and so Erdogan was able to call out the population onto the streets and organize other responses.

Erdogan happened to be out of the country at the time. Accordingly, a prime requirement was to keep him there. That meant an important first strike had to be on airports, and if possible, keep the fact that you now controlled them secret. If Erdogan wanted to return, have a welcoming party awaiting him. But the plotters seemingly had overlooked this as well.

Suppose they had achieved that, there was a very important next step that was overlooked: why should people accept the coup? Just saying they don’t like the government is not good enough; at times I don’t like my government, but a coup is hardly an answer. What they need is a cause, and as soon as they control the communications, it is important that that cause is announced, and it is most desirable that the cause is one the population will appreciate. We don’t know why they tried to carry out this coup, but it is unlikely that they would have had a strong following because the coup collapsed through people power. Not good for the plotters.

The next thing they needed was enough men to do this quickly and discreetly, and oddly enough, they failed here too. Driving tanks through a city merely irritates the population, and begs the question, what are the tanks going to do about opposition? Unless the tankers are prepared to machine gun down opposition, a tank is counterproductive, and these soldiers were not prepared to do that. If you want to do it by sheer power, you actually have to demonstrate the willingness to use it. Either you have to get the population behind you, or you have to make them too afraid to oppose you. Since the two are mutually exclusive, you have to choose early, and follow through with vigour.

So, democracy is restored? I am not so sure. What I think this may have done is to cement in the authoritarian rule of Erdogan. I gather that over 2,000 judges have been arrested or dismissed. Why? Presumably because they might give judgments that Erdogan does not like. It is most unlikely that many judges could be part of a military plot. This will be giving Erdogan a chance to clean out those who oppose him personally, and the last I heard was that over 50,000 government employees, including teachers, have been fired and are under investigation. They could not be part of the coup, otherwise the secrecy would have been lost. Fifty thousand people can’t keep a secret, or if they can, there were easily enough people available to take all the key positions. Interestingly, in Turkey the power is supposed to reside with parliament, not the President, but in the interview I saw the Prime Minister effectively stated he was going to hand over power to Erdogan because Turkey needed a strong leader who could get things done, and this was before the coup attempt. For me, that is not very encouraging.

We need fact-based decisions – or do we?

Do you often wish that politicians would base their actions on facts? I know I have from time to time, but facts are slippery little things, and in the hands of politicians, they take on a whole new degree of slipperiness. You may recall back in 2003, the “facts” as presented to the world included that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he could launch on Europe or the UK in a matter of hours. In fact there were no such weapons. Further, at the time there was no evidence at all that anyone who could be described as reliable had seen any such weapons, and further, the UN weapons inspectors at the time kept asserting that they had not seen them, and they were convinced there were no such weapons. At the time even I was convinced there would be no such operable weapons. The reason for that is that something like anthrax needs a dispersing agent, and there was no such fresh agent entering Iraq since the Iraqis were ejected from Kuwait. Had there been weapons from that time secreted away somewhere, with no special preservation conditions, the dispersing agent would have clogged up. Similarly, any of the phosphorylating nerve “gases” would have condensed, and border controls should have been able to stop the importation of a chemical such as methylphosphonyl difluoride. Iraq could not make such a chemical without giving evidence that it was doing so. So we could safely assume there were no chemical weapons, or if you did not believe that, the onus was on you to provide evidence. There was no evidence, nor weapons of mass destruction; merely politicians with an urge to go to war.

It appears that in the recent Brexit campaigning, there were many “facts” floating around that simply were not true, or at best they were misleading in the extreme. Apparently there were also facts that were concealed. I saw a TV interview with Major General Julian Thompson, and he asserted that the EU was floating the idea of an EU army, in other words the EU was taking a further step towards becoming a federation of states as opposed to a collection of countries. The General was in a position to know, so it is reasonable to assume this has some basis. We shall have to wait and see.

A classic example of politicians behaving loosely with facts was recently exemplified here. There was a program proposed in parliament that involved the creation of new social benefits. The Minister of Finance jumped to his feet and vetoed it, on the basis that the cost he quoted would exceed the budgetary limitations. Some time later he was forced to admit the number he came up with was the estimate for a period of four years, not the one year implied by the veto.

One that annoys me is the irrelevant fact. As an example, I recently saw a statement that “enough sunlight strikes the earth in an hour to supply our energy requirements for a year”. The first problem is the undefined “our”, but let that pass. What is proposed? There are 8766 hours in a year, more or less, so for continual supply, we need an area of solar panels normal to the solar radiation equal to the cross-sectional area of the earth divided by 8766, which comes out as about 14579 square km. A square solar panel of 121 km along its side would do nicely, provided it was always at right angles to the solar radiation, and provided it was 100% efficient. Now, I am fairly sure he was not proposing that, so why put up this proposal anyway? It is a startling figure that promises unlimited energy, until you actually put some figures on what has to be done to get it. Politicians let loose with facts are quite a menace unless there are independent agencies with the ability to check them.

Why do we have this type of economy?

There is little doubt that Adam Smith did as much for economic theory as anyone, but that does not mean that he and David Ricardo had found the best way to run an economy. For the Smith doctrine, markets are free and competitive, therefore what you get is proportional to your value, or at least your social contribution. It assumes that entry to the market place is effectively free and unconstrained, as is exiting, and further no single entry or exit will significantly perturb the market. The problem with this point of view is that it just does not apply in many areas. Smith based his analysis on an agricultural society, and in this the farmers have to sell whatever they grow, and his assumptions are valid. An additional farmer, or one who does not produce, makes little difference to the market. There are ups and downs. I can recall when I was young there was a potato glut, and farmers were taking potatoes and throwing them over a cliff. My father was at the bottom and picked up what he needed and set off to grow them for next season, his reason being if everyone else was getting out of potatoes, next season there would be a shortage. That happened, and prices went up by a factor of ten. Smith’s theory was working well, including the fact that some could see what would happen and make money from their foresight.

However, there is another side to the market: some find the best way to make money is not to be efficient, but to exercise power. With sufficient power, you can close out competitors, and with a monopoly, or failing that, a limited oligopoly, you can price how you like. The problem with Smith’s analysis is that the players respond differently to their rewards. Some spend and others save. The concept of saving, in the Smith analysis, is that the saver simply delays reward, while investment is made with the goal of forgoing present rewards with the view to get bigger rewards in the future. But suppose the purpose of saving is not to get rewards, but rather to gain economic power? With power, you also get inequality, because the purpose of power is to get your rewards by tithing those without sufficient power.

In a previous post ( ) I constructed a simple game where 128 people started equally, and they could either spend or save. After as few as five rounds, where in each round there was a fifty-fifty choice of whether to spend or invest, one was clearly ahead of all the rest. Now, you might say, if someone is prepared to forego current pleasure, is it not fair that he ends up with more wealth in the end? That depends, in my opinion, on how he uses it. If the saving is merely spent on getting a bigger brighter object, then that is of no concern, but if he uses wealth to close down others’ opportunities, then that is not helpful.

The problem with the wealth is that when opportunities are rare, whoever gets in first and succeeds has a great start. There is no doubt that in the very early stages of a new technology, there are a number of failures as a very few become ascendant. The question then is, why do they become ascendant? In some cases it is because others fall by the wayside, in part because they were one-hit wonders, and as time passes, the hit that was is no longer a hit. But in other cases, it was because they were lucky, or had a slight edge at the right time and place. How much is due to power and influence? It may very well be that it has nothing to do with the best product. Thus I recall when desktop computers came into being, businesses all went with Microsoft. Why was that? First, Microsoft somehow came to a deal with IBM, which in principle had been leading in the handling of mainframe computers for some time. Why IBM gave Microsoft that position is one of the mysteries of life; presumably they did not foresee what would happen, because the opportunity was theirs for the taking. IBM gave businesses a feeling of “security”. Second, these businesses often had in-house computer “experts”, and these would recommend Microsoft, even if it were not the best. Why? Well, if they recommended Apple, say, the bosses could work out how to use it themselves, and the jobs of the “IT experts” were not necessary. Better to go with IBM, and keep their jobs because the procedures then were too opaque for the bosses, and the workers were not going to show them how to do what would make them unnecessary. There are a number of other businesses, such as telecoms, insurance, pharmaceuticals, banks, etc, that are essentially oligopolistic.

Pharmaceuticals are an interesting example, in that the relevant companies have supported extremely expensive testing regimes that ensure the barriers to anyone else entering are so high. With little competition, they price their drugs extremely highly, thus ensuring many ordinary people cannot afford them, and also, they tend to focus their research on chronic problems, or problems such as cancer, where any treatment has to be on-going for a long time. There is also the question of personal rewards. The large payments to the banksters who effectively brought the economy to its knees, and their firms to near collapse is hardly a sign of reward for value and efficiency.

So, the question is, are our economies run by means that are fundamentally efficient and fair, or are they based on exploitation? If the former, governments cannot do anything but mess them up; if the latter, then defeating entrenched power is necessary for fairness and shared prosperity. Assuming we want to be fair. Do we, or do we prefer to let greed win out, and ignore the [plight of those who did not win?

Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic

Despite the fact that, apart from greenhouse effects, Mars has had temperatures that never exceeded about minus 50 degrees C over its lifetime, it also has had some quite unexpected fluid systems. One of the longest river systems starts in several places at approximately 60 degrees south in the highlands and drains into Argyre, thence to the Holden and Ladon Valles, then stops and apparently dropped massive amounts of ice in the Margaritifer Valles, which are at considerably lower altidude and just north of the equator. Why does a river start at one of the coldest places on Mars, and freeze out at one of the warmest? There is evidence of ice having been in the fluid, which means the fluid must have been water. (Water is extremely unusual in that the solid, ice, floats in the liquid.) These fluid systems flowed, although not necessarily continuously, for a period of about 300 million years, then stopped entirely, although there are other regions where fluid flows probably occurred later. To the northeast of Hellas (the deepest impact crater on Mars) the Dao and Harmakhis Valles change from prominent and sharp channels to diminished and muted flows at –5.8 k altitude that resemble terrestrial marine channels beyond river mouths.

So, how did the water melt? For the Dao and Harmakhis, the Hadriaca Patera (volcano) was active at the time, so some volcanic heat was probably available, but that would not apply to the systems starting in the southern highlands.

After a prolonged period in which nothing much happened, there were catastrophic flows that continued for up to 2000 km forming channels up to 200 km wide, which would require flows of approximately 100,000,000 cubic meters/sec. For most of those flows, there is no obvious source of heat. Only ice could provide the volume, but how could so much ice melt with no significant heat source, be held without re-freezing, then be released suddenly and explosively? There is no sign of significant volcanic activity, although minor activity would not be seen. Where would the water come from? Many of the catastrophic flows start from the Margaritifer Chaos, so the source of the water could reasonably be the earlier river flows, but why did it ice?

If we start with the source of the water, that would presumably be volcanism, and the evidence is there was plenty of volcanic activity about four billion years ago. Water and gases would be thrown into the atmosphere, and the water would ice/snow out predominantly in the coldest regions. That gets water to the southern highlands, and to the highlands east of Hellas. There may also be geologic deposits of water. From the previous posts, the gases would contain methane and ammonia. The methane would provide some sort of greenhouse effect, but ammonia on contact with ice at minus 80 degrees C or above, dissolves in the ice and makes an ammonia/water solution. This, I propose, was the fluid. As the fluid goes north, winds and warmer temperatures would drive off some of the ammonia so oddly enough, as the fluid gets warmer, ice starts to come out. Ammonia in the air will go and melt more snow. (This is not all that happens, but it should happen.) Eventually, the ammonia has gone, and the water sinks into the ground and freezes out into a massive buried ice sheet.

If so, we can now see where the catastrophic flows come from. We have the ice deposit where required. We now require at least fumaroles to be generated underneath the ice. The Margaritifer Chaos is within plausible distance of major volcanism, and of tectonic activity (near the mouth of the Valles Marineris system). Now, let us suppose the gases emerge. Methane immediately clathrates with the ice (enters the ice structure and sits there), because of the pressure. The ammonia dissolves ice and forms a small puddle below. This keeps going over time, but as it does, the amount of water increases and the amount of ice decreases. Eventually, there comes a point where there is insufficient ice to hold the methane, and pressure builds up until the whole system ruptures and the mass of fluid pours out. With the pressure gone, the remaining ice clathrates start breaking up explosively. Erosion is caused not only by the fluid, but by exploding ice. The temperature never gets near the freezing point of water.

The point then is, is there any evidence for this? The answer is, so far, no. However, if this mechanism is correct, there is more to the story. The methane will be oxidised in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide by solar radiation and water. Ammonia and carbon dioxide will combine and form ammonium carbonate, then urea. So if this is true, we expect to find buried where there had been water, deposits of urea, or whatever it converted to over three billion years. (Very slow chemical reactions are essentially unknown – chemists do not have the patience to do experiments over millions of years, let alone billions!) There is one further possibility. Certain metal ions complex with ammonia to form ammines, which dissolve in water or ammonia fluid. These would sink underground, and if the metal ions were there, so might be the remains of the ammines now. So we have to go to Mars and dig.

I am hoping to attach two images taken by the NASA satellites. One shows the Dao and Harmakhis Valles. The other shows a small section of one. As you can see, the greatest erosion happens near the sources, or in isolated sections, and these can have extremely steep sides. In the second, the flow is from top right to bottom left, and you an see it has to link through a very narrow channel. Additionally, you should be able to see what looks like signs of slight run-off erosion similar to that you might expect from snow melting on the close-up. My view is that these great cavities were simply huge ice masses that eventually melted and flowed away.